I was born in 1969 in Darlington, County Durham, UK and grew up in the village of Cotherstone some 20 miles further up the river Tees. Both my parents were podiatrists and I’m the youngest of three brothers. Cotherstone was a lovely place to spend my formative years. In 1983 our family moved to Darlington. Near the end of my schooling, at Queen Elizabeth Sixth form College in Darlington, I got interested in astronomy thanks to a great physics teacher, John Charney, who trusted me and some fellow students with the keys to the telescope so that we could observe a lunar eclipse. Inspired by that, and “The Sky At Night” on the BBC, I went on to study Astrophysics at the University of Wales College of Cardiff from 1987 to 1990.
While at Cardiff, I had the great fortune to learn from a number of excellent faculty, including Prof. Bernard Schutz who nurtured my interest in neutron stars. Despite knowing barely anything about radio astronomy, following Schutz’s recommendation, I applied to graduate study at the University of Manchester and was at the Jodrell Bank Observatory from 1990-1994. I quickly became enchanted by the wide array of radio dishes in the muddy fields of the observatory and carried out research with Dr. Matthew Bailes (fellow 2023 Shaw Astronomy Laureate) for my master’s degree, and continued to a PhD under the guidance of Prof. Andrew Lyne. The infectious enthusiasm of Bailes and Lyne for pulsars had me hooked; those projects took me on several extended research trips to the Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) in Sydney. This began a career-long association with the Parkes Radio Telescope (Murriyang) as part of a survey of the Southern Sky led by Lyne and Prof. Dick Manchester at the ATNF.
Those observing runs at Parkes, often carried out under the guidance of Dr. Simon Johnston at the ATNF, cemented my interest in research primarily using radio dishes to search for pulsars and in particular characterize their underlying population in a wide variety of environments. This field of “pulsar statistics” has been a driving force in my research ever since. After graduating from Manchester and a short stint (1994-1995) as a lecturer, I took postdoctoral appointments at the Max-Planck-Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany (1995-1998) and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (1998-2001) which was at that time managed by Cornell University. It was at Arecibo that I met the love of my life Maura McLaughlin (fellow 2023 Shaw Astronomy Laureate) while she was working on her PhD at Cornell. Maura and I moved to Jodrell in 2001 where I was a Royal Society University Research Fellow, and she was awarded a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow.
Being back at Jodrell working on pulsar projects with Maura was a very exciting period. Maura led the discovery of the Rotating Radio Transients and she and I worked on the Double Pulsar System. With long-time collaborator Michael Kramer from Bonn, I co-wrote “Handbook of Pulsar Astronomy” in 2004. Maura and I had a wonderful time exploring the UK and Europe and got married in 2003. After five years at Jodrell, we received an offer to start an astrophysics group at West Virginia University (WVU). Inspired by the collaborations that we had worked in, we moved to WVU in 2006 with our son Callum who was born in 2005. We’ve since expanded the family with two more boys in Morgantown, Finlay (2007) and Owen (2011). Raising these three amazing humans with Maura continues to be the highlight of my life.
At WVU we have had the opportunity to build many partnerships at the state, national and international level as we have built an astrophysics program with strong ties to the Green Bank Observatory in southern WV. Currently, the faculty at WVU includes seven astronomers with a speciality in compact objects, radio astronomy, and gravitational wave astrophysics. The discovery of fast radio bursts (FRBs) by our team at WVU in 2007 helped us to grow and flourish over the years. I’ve since led the Department of Physics and Astronomy at WVU three times as Chair and, since 2019, serve the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences as its Associate Dean for Research.
It has been the thrill of a lifetime to play a key role in finding and establishing FRBs as a scientific phenomenon. The people highlighted above have been essential mentors and dear friends to me throughout the journey. I continue to work with and be inspired by them and many other brilliant minds in the community. The promise of FRBs as probes of the large-scale structure of the Universe is now just being realized. An exciting future lies ahead as researchers from around the world enter a rich phase of discovery into the origin and evolution of FRBs.
12 November 2023 Hong Kong